“Abstinence,” exclaimed Coach Brown, crossing his arms in front of his crotch, “equals,” he said, moving them up to his torso in a parallel formation, “freedom,” he finished off, raising them triumphantly over his head.
Abstinence equals freedom. That was the core of my public school sex education—a dominantly heteronormative scope at that. This motto came years after I learned that one meaning of the word s-e-x was when a man’s penis entered a woman’s vagina, and then a baby was born nine months later. I was eight years old in my mom’s Chevrolet Suburban, jumping around and frantically asking my mom to explain sex to me after I heard my older brother, seven years my senior, say the word. From then, my interest and general confusion about male-female intimacy started.
Five years later, when I was 13, my friend Haley blushed when I asked her to repeat the infamous “talk” her parents gave her. She drew a picture of a sperm on her green Palm Pilot, and I didn’t believe that the worm-looking creature was inside a man’s body. We laid down next to each other in her queen bed listening to the cicadas through the open window, talking about the mystery that was ejaculation.
“There’s no way stuff comes out. That’s not right,” I said, shaking my head.
“That’s what they said,” she tried convincing me in an authoritative tone. “I guess that’s why boys wear condoms.”
“Gross,” I said rolling over; unable to understand why anyone would have sex for fun.
The next year, Haley and I obsessively followed Gossip Girl. When we couldn’t sit in one of our basements and binge on “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite,” we would call each other on our landline phones and discuss every detail of what happened, plus our predictions for the next segment. The protagonists of the show are fast-paced, privileged teens, and sex was a major part of their lives. But, this was fiction. I would never go through this kind of drama because, much to my dismay, I was not Serena van der Woodsen, one of the stars.
The media I consumed in middle school started to align with Gossip Girl-esque sexualization. Hints about masturbation popped up on Tumblr, people started using their enVs and Sidekicks to send naked pictures, and boys talked about porn at the lunch table next to me. I scoured the Young Adult fiction section of my local library and indulged in semi-steamy teenage romances.
When I was 16, the same year I chanted “abstinence equals freedom,” Haley told me about losing her virginity. Just like when we were eight, we sat in her bed, but this time with a bottle of red wine stolen from my parents and much quieter whispers.
“I don’t know,” she said, her face scrunching after taking a swig from the bottle. “It felt good. A little weird. I can’t really describe it.”
At that point, I had only had my first kiss (a disappointing, sweaty affair at the homecoming dance). I only knew of Sarah Dessen and Nicholas Sparks characters falling in love with summer flings and tenderly making love. I pressed Haley for more details, but my parents’ wine made her sleepy and ended the conversation early. Yet again, I was left laying in bed, wondering how anyone could do that for fun.
Even when my friends and I spoke about sex, we used terms like “doing it” and “banging.” All of the sudden, my education went from being strictly dry and scientific, to juicy gossip and one-sided accounts of awkward nights. There was a major conflict of wanting to know more, of being curious about sexual health, but not having the proper resources. I left for college without any direction, lost somewhere between abstinence and teen pregnancy scares.
It wasn’t until a year later when I was a bright-eyed, inexperienced freshman that I started to delve more into my own sexual health. I was laying in a new bed, listening to people stumble out of Whisky Saigon and the deep, masculine snores next to my ear. I had finally figured out why Haley found it hard to articulate her first sexual experience, because it was precisely as she put it: good, but weird. Feeling that amount of endorphins and adrenaline and numbness and closeness all at once was so foreign to me. All of the sudden, sex was so much less mechanical, and so much more complex. I realized that I didn’t love him, but I loved sex. The two were not mutually inclusive, which was news to me.
Shortly after becoming sexually active, I reached out an OB-GYN, a specialty doctor I should have seen when I was in high school and confused about the subject. A quick appointment for birth control pills turned into an hour-long discussion about the realities of both the male and female reproductive system, and some laughs about the quirks of partners. We discussed everything from lube to orgasms to female contraceptives. I was in awe at how much there is to discover about a not-so-simple act of a finger, sex toy, tongue, or a penis entering a vagina.
Sorry, Coach Brown, but abstinence was far from freedom for me.